(Almost) Everything I need to know about nonprofits I learned from the X-Men

SupeherosSummer is coming, and so are the superhero movies. This gets me thinking of my favorite ‘90s cartoon, X-Men. The X-Men are all “mutants,” which means they were born with “x-tra” powers built into their DNA. (The writers came up with this idea because there are only so many times ordinary citizens can fall into vats of toxic waste.)

The group was formed for the same reasons many nonprofits are – to build community and work for a better world. It is a constant battle against fear, prejudice and hatred – and it’s hard (though rewarding) work, much like nonprofit work. To stay motivated, the X-Men focus on some key ideals: standing up for their values, teamwork, and community.

Taking a stand

The X-Men have enormous power: there’s a guy who shoots lasers out of his eyes and a woman who can make a hurricane anywhere. Even though most humans fear and hate them, the X-Men still fight to protect them from bad guys and asteroids and all kinds of threats, instead of using their eye lasers to rob banks or take over small countries.

Why do they put the good of others, even their antagonists, ahead of their own interests? Could be the psychic income, but just like most nonprofiteers, they’ve decided to serve the collective good. This is a nice reminder for nonprofit professionals to take a step back and think about the community we’re serving. It’s easy to get caught up in the small goals that benefit us or our organizations – let’s raise this much money, let’s have this many focus groups, let’s fill out these evaluations by next week – but it takes discipline to step back and see the big picture. What kind of progress are you really making? Are you really helping people? How many lives did you save today with your eye lasers? Stepping back and connecting what you do with the difference you’re trying to make strengthens your own sense of purpose and capacity to lead. It’s re-energizing and helps you align your decisions, big and small, with your values.

Move like a team

The X-Men win a lot because they use teamwork. They play off each others’ strengths and compensate for each others’ weaknesses. Take the fastball special, where big, strong Colossus throws small, tough Wolverine right at a bad guy, claws first. Talk about leveraging your resources. It’s fun to imagine doing this in a non-physical way with your coworkers. Launch your brilliant marketing person right at that uninspiring brochure!

As younger employees, we’re naturally focused on developing our skills and launching our careers – but it’s critical to keep an eye to learning your coworkers’ strengths so you can tap them, and I mean more than technical skills like Excel. Who always asks the right questions that illustrate whether an idea is right or not? Who is great at drawing up project timelines? Focusing on your team’s strengths is like adding new tools to your own toolbox: you’ll find abundant ways to complement each other.

The value of community

More than anything, the X-Men are about community. They stand up for people they’ve never even met and work with all kinds of partners to make it happen. Nonprofiteers do that every day. And whenever I go to a YNPN event, I feel like I belong.

We can be more intentional about creating community – real, authentic community.  People work their tails off every day on diversity and inclusion initiatives, which wouldn’t be so necessary if we were better connected just as people and felt a real sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. Inclusion is a huge, society-wide concept, but we can tackle it on a small level every day, by meeting others where they’re at and making their priorities our priorities. Jeez, the X-Men often partner with aliens to save the world.  They’re comfortable with difference. Everyone can belong.

The X-Men have certainly taught me a lot of things I can apply to my nonprofit career, (although there are a few things that didn’t transfer over so well, like fundraising - They have two rich people on the team who apparently take care of everything. Too few donors and no development operation is not sustainable, especially if one of your programs racks up millions in property damage every month!) Even though the X-Men live in a fantasy world, many of their ideals apply to our everyday lives. As an office worker, it seems ridiculous to compare yourself to crazy superheroes in spandex, but it makes the day more fun… and you have more in common than you think.

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